In her next interview for The Masters Review, Courtney Harler corresponds with Jessica O’Dwyer, whose debut novel Mother Mother publishes on October 1. Courtney and Jessica discuss the writing and publishing processes, as well as the joys and perils of motherhood.
Jessica, I am just thrilled to see your novel publish! When we met at Bread Loaf in 2016, I instantly knew your book had the potential to make its indelible mark on the literary world. I do recall, however, that our fiction workshop, guided by Luis Alberto Urrea and Naomi Jackson, struggled with questions of identity and agency, and not just with your novel excerpt. Our group, and rightfully so, seemed particularly concerned with the way a writer might co-opt other voices. I can see the way you’ve balanced the book with the dual narration—but how did you come to this successful format of the “testimonial”? What other narrative techniques had you attempted, and how did you overcome any lingering reservations?
Thank you, Courtney. Our Bread Loaf experience was enlightening and memorable. I’m glad we met there.
The “testimonial” (or testimonio in Spanish) is a genre of storytelling throughout Latin America. It’s a story told in first person by an individual to an audience, about a subject critically important to the speaker—a subject with high stakes. Here’s a dictionary definition: “[A testimonio] is a story that has gone unheard but will no longer be ignored. In this way, testimonio is sometimes classified as ‘resistance literature.’”
The most famous testimonial may be the one told by Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchú and recorded by Elizabeth Burgos-Debray in I, Rigoberta Menchú. Other compelling testimonials were offered by Ixil women and other survivors during the genocide trials of Guatemalan dictator Efraín Rios Montt.
I witnessed my first testimonial years ago at an orphanage where I volunteered. At that point, I was unfamiliar with the form, but quickly grasped its power. A young man stood up and told his life story, a gripping tale which began with being abandoned to the streets of Guatemala City. Soon after, I heard a testimonial by a middle-aged woman from the highlands whose family had been terrorized during the country’s 36-year civil war. She talked of being a little girl and hearing a knock on the door in the middle of the night. The army killed almost everyone in her village. Her family survived by hiding in a forest.
This was how Rosalba’s voice came to me. Clear and straightforward. Direct. I tried writing her in close third, but she felt too distant. Rosalba’s voice was insistent. She was going to tell her own story. Even so, I had reservations. I asked myself if I should be allowed to speak from an indigenous birth mother’s point of view. I struggled with how to respect the brave women of Guatemala. Ultimately, I decided the only way to convey truths I believed after nearly two decades of lived experience as an adoptive mother was through Rosalba’s testimonial. Other writers will come forward to express their own truths, and I welcome them.
You’ve also written and published a memoir called Mamalita. Many new writers hope to “translate” life experiences into memoirs or novels. How would you characterize writing the memoir in juxtaposition with writing the novel? Was one “easier” than the other? Did you feel like you needed to write the memoir before the novel, to sort out your own “story,” so to speak? Or, has the novel been longer in the making, if only in your mind and not on the actual page? Also, Mamalita seems to take a more critical view of the entire adoption system, as opposed to Mother Mother, whose main character, Julie, seems more concerned with becoming a mother by any means possible. Would you agree with that particular assessment, and why or why not?
Writing any book is hard, in my opinion. The process in both is similar because, although you “know” the story in memoir, you still need to establish stakes, write three-dimensional characters, and drive the action. What was different about the novel was the element of serendipity. I had outlined the main beats, but often scenes and subplots came to me in dreams. The book took off in directions I hadn’t anticipated.
I never considered writing a novel until after Mamalita was published. The novel grew out of the memoir. Because of Mamalita, I was invited to speak at adoption camps, agencies, and book clubs, where I met many people who told me their stories—accounts filled with secrets and turmoil and love and fear. Everywhere I went, I seemed to meet someone who was adopted, or had an adopted sibling, or who had relinquished a child. People who wanted to search for their child’s birth mother, or people who had searched and discovered treachery. People who wondered about the birth mother’s side of the story. The subject was so huge and so deep. Then you had the overlay of the history of Guatemala.
I’d read novels that used adoption as a theme, but they seemed barely to scratch the surface. I remembered the Toni Morrison quote: “If there’s a book you want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” That’s how I started.
From what I observe, most people who wish to become parents—women and men—dedicate themselves fully to the goal. Julie exemplifies this total commitment. In her mind, Jack is meant to be her son, and she’ll stop at nothing to become his mother.
Memoir really does have the benefit of hindsight. As I wrote Mamalita, I came to understand my own complicity in the system. In Mother Mother, I deliberately created a character who is not me. Julie is living in real time, busy overcoming obstacles, not pausing to reflect. She hasn’t yet learned what I’ve learned. The arc of her journey ends with the beginning of her understanding.
Your debut novel makes very clear that being a mother is not easy, and no matter what “kind” of mother, be it a “first” mother or adoptive mother. In fact, I think, from my experience, that being a mother is often much harder than being a father, especially in traditional families. Even in non-traditional families, wherein both mother and father work and “promise” to split childcare and homecare 50/50, it still seems the greater portion of parenting falls to the mother. For example, in your book, Julie is seen most often in the parental role, and her work suffers. Mark, on the other hand, works late and takes extra me-time to workout, among other pursuits.
Another result of mothers devoting more time to their children than typical fathers is that the children are more familiar, more at ease, with the mother on a daily basis. This ease results in more closeness, but also, frankly, more bad behavior. It’s as if the child is more comfortable misbehaving for the mother. I don’t know about you, but I have often felt taken for granted by my children in the past. They are both older, 15 and 20, but that feeling persists even as they mature and grow. I’m glad they feel close to me, but I also wish I could garner the same respect and deference their father has seemed to earn as a (somewhat) absent parent due to his career. In your book, Jack, the adopted son, has some pretty stellar meltdowns, but mostly with Julie. How would you explain this phenomenon—this different treatment of mothers and fathers—and how do you think we can create actual equality between parents in modern households?
With parenting, the adages “Familiarity breeds contempt” and “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” definitely apply. But in the novel, Jack’s behavior exceeds typical lack of respect and deference. His meltdowns are manifestations of a theory described by adoption psychologists as “the primal wound.” The primal wound posits that a natural bond exists between biological mother and child and severing that bond leads to serious consequences, including fear of abandonment and inability to trust. Jack repeatedly tests the parent he’s most terrified of losing: his mother, Julie.
The intensity of Mark and Julie’s relationship with their son can never be equal because Jack needs his mother more. Viewed from this perspective, one answer to your question is that couples should make every effort to divide tasks, while accepting that emotional parity may never be possible. Fathers may wish to step up household contributions to compensate for a mother’s greater emotional requirement.
You wrote that ninety agents passed on this manuscript, but then you found success with Loyola University’s Apprentice House Press, who did not require an agent for novel submission. Could you tell us more about your path to publishing? Everyone’s path is different, but yours is particularly unique. Tell us first about your novel’s struggle to find its way in the literary world, and then tell us about its triumph in finding a home. You can ignore this question if you find it too flippant (although I am in earnest here): Did you find any instructive parallels between the international child adoption process and the book publishing process? Perseverance, obviously, but I know a book baby can’t compare to a human baby, no matter how intensely writers feel. I guess I am asking to hear your lessons here: What wisdom can you now impart, given your particular experience and earned knowledge and honed skillset, to other would-be novelists?
The most helpful wisdom I can impart is simple: Never give up. Many, many people will tell you no. Keep moving forward anyway.
The first year I attended the Squaw Valley Writers’ Conference, one of the speakers said you need to be rejected by 100 literary agents before going to plan B, which is to find a small press or self-publish. “A hundred rejections?” I thought. “Impossible!” That was, of course, before I started pitching this book. The handful of agents who even responded said, “You’re a talented writer, but this project isn’t for us.”
Which was fine. Which was great. Because with each rejection, I went back to the manuscript to look for ways to improve it. I rewrote the beginning. Slashed 12,000 words. A sentence didn’t flow? I agonized over it. A scene was slow? Gone.
After rejections from 90 agents, I started to research independent presses that accepted un-agented work. I found Apprentice House, sent in my manuscript, and promptly forgot about it. Because why would I remember? I assumed they’d reject me like everyone else. The call came on a Friday night. My kids and I were roaming the aisles of Target when an unfamiliar number flashed on my phone. I started jumping up and down, screaming. My son rushed over and grabbed me. “Mom, stop,” he said. “You’re on the security camera.” The three of us fell into a group hug. I was literally sobbing. I love that my kids witnessed my moment of victory because they’d seen me endure so much failure.
After I became a mother through adoption, I realized every decision I’d made in my life, every action I’d taken, had led to the formation of our particular family. And it feels like the right family.
I feel the same about Loyola’s Apprentice House Press. Everything that came before led me to them. I couldn’t be happier or more grateful.
Interviewed by Courtney Harler